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Lady Bird Johnson Remembers
The former First Lady looks back on the years with Lyndon and discusses her life today
December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
The State Department would send you a briefing ahead of time, and if you took the trouble to read it, which I always did, it would just really give you everything and more than you needed to know. Then I would always back that up by going to my wonderful National Geographic set of maps, pulling down the one from that country and seeing who were its neighbors and what were its principal rivers. I believed in doing my homework, and I did it as much as I could.
Were you afraid during those White House years? Succeeding to the office after the assassination of a President, I should think physical danger must have been very much on your mind.
No, I just don’t think it’s my destiny, and I just can’t bear to think that it’s a part of the habit or character of America to go around assassinating people.
We’ve had some horrible examples.
I just think they were one-time hideous events.
And President Johnson, did he worry about his safety?
No, not at all, as far as I know.
You mentioned in your diary that after Mrs. Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis, you stopped having a vague sense of guilt about her. Why was that?
Well, I don’t think I would have used that word, but I just felt sort of haunted that she—at what her life had turned into, to have her husband killed in front of her eyes, in our state, in the wonderful years of youth.
So, it was almost a relief that she was picking up life again?
Yes, that’s it. If she could resume life enough to marry somebody else, I could put down a burden. Don’t ask me why.
Do you have strong instincts about people?
Yes, I do.
Is that one of the ways you could help President Johnson, or did he also have that quality?
I think generally he had it. I think sometimes he was more trusting than I was.
You were tougher-minded than he was about people?
Probably, but less prejudiced. I could see the good points in people who didn’t like me or agree with me, and try to get something, some service, some help for the country out of them and it didn’t bother me. I didn’t have to be close to them.
And that was harder for him?
Perhaps a little.
Everything I read stresses that you have always been careful about money. Are you still?
I am [laughs], and I’m sure my staff would agree. As a matter of fact, I think I’m careful only to the point of not liking to see waste and making sure of getting my money’s worth. I saw how hard my father worked to make his fairly substantial amount of property, and although Lyndon could be absolutely prodigal with money, he was also careful with it in his way.
Were your father and President Johnson alike in other ways?
Yes, a little bit. They were both strong men, strong in personalities, strong in bodies, strong in intelligence, in my opinion, and they were both good looking.
Were they both charismatic men?
Lyndon was. My father never felt any need of being. You see, he lived in a very small sphere in a country area, and everybody just—his nickname was “Mr. Boss,” or “Cap Taylor.” He was a man that everybody turned to for the answers, let me say that.
You mention in your diary that you are a person who has a strong need to be alone sometimes. Did you ever get a chance in the White House to be by yourself?
Yes, sometimes I would come down here [to the ranch], work real hard for a couple of days and then just do nothing but walk and swim and look at the world. Then there were always the long hours at the White House waiting for Lyndon’s return [from his office at the end of his long working days]. It’s not the kind of being alone that I particularly like, but it did give me gaps of time in which there was no staff, nobody around.
It sounds as though your meals must have been very irregular.
In a long life of being both what I thought was sensible and realistic and laughing and goading and fussing and praising and the whole routine, I didn’t ever change Lyndon about eating regular meals. He ate whenever he finished whatever work he was doing.
Is it true that sometimes when the President was speaking, you would send him a note telling him that it was time to stop? How did he take that?
Usually with laughter. Occasionally with annoyance, but usually he’d hold it up and say, “My wife sent me this note.” And sometimes he was just working up to something important and necessary, but he was working up too slow. He ought to say it and say it quick. I knew that to send him a note might put him off key, and yet I did, a good many times.
You obviously had to dress carefully as First Lady, but I gather you have never much liked shopping for clothes. Is that true?